Deep Space Nine’s Most Important Episode?

Summary

  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a broad series that balanced heavy emotion, social allegory, and the silliness and humor the franchise is known for.
  • The episode “In the Pale Moonlight” is a classic, but what it says about Captain Sisko’s character makes it the show’s most important.
  • Starfleet captains are paragons of virtue, but Sisko is put in an impossible position and how he reacts to it defines his character and the show.


Despite running for seven seasons and telling dynamic stories with myriad tones, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine earned the reputation as the “dark” show in the franchise. While this reputation is a bit overblown, one of the show’s most important episodes likely helped that idea stick. Season 6’s “In the Pale Moonlight,” is a daring DS9 story that pushes Captain Benjamin Sisko, and the audience, into very uncomfortable territory.

Another contributor to Deep Space Nine‘s legacy as the dark Star Trek series was it brought war to Gene Roddenberry’s universe for the first time. Until then, any war mentioned in Star Trek was something that happened in the past. The Dominion, a kind of anti-Federation from the Gamma Quadrant, were formidable villains, and the fighting took a heavy toll on the characters. Many episodes dealt with what that was like throughout the series. Nog, the lovable Ferengi played by the late Aron Eisenberg, lost a leg and suffered post-traumatic stress. Starfleet was even corrupted by the fighting, using biological warfare and nearly committing genocide. However, “In the Pale Moonlight” takes things much further by injecting the show’s greatest hero with the corrupting influence of war. It was a risky move, because it could’ve turned the audience against Captain Sisko if the episode hadn’t been so expertly written. The audience could understand why things happen as they do and, like Sisko, they can live with it.


‘In the Pale Moonlight’ Comes from Batman and Real-World Wartime Deceit

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Writer Michael Taylor came up with the original idea for the episode, and producers Peter Allan Fields and Ronald D. Moore helped shape it into its final form. Taylor brought up a telegram Germany sent to Mexico that led the US into World War I called the Zimmerman Note (once believed to have been fake), he told The 7th Rule podcast. The other writers looked to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a false claim from the US government that led to the war in Vietnam and the Watergate hotel break-in that led to President Nixon’s resignation, according to The Deep Space Nine Companion by Terry J. Erdmann with Paula M. Block.

The plan was for budding reporter Jake Sisko to discover his father and former Cardassian spy Garak was creating a false flag attack to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War. Not wanting to risk one of the series’ most wholesome relationships, Jake was eventually cut from the story. Moore, who developed the framing of the episode with Sisko talking to the camera while recording a captain’s log, wrote the final draft focused on how mounting casualties made him desperate. Every bit the ideal Starfleet captain, Sisko is drawn into an amoral plot by Garak.

The title is a direct reference to the Joker’s infamous line from 1989’s Batman, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Sisko is effectively dancing with the devil by orchestrating false evidence to draw Romulans into the war. If that wasn’t bad enough, he becomes an accessory to murder twice over to accomplish the goal. It’s one thing when the corrupting influence of war affects Starfleet characters the audience doesn’t know. “In the Pale Moonlight” shows even the fans’ beloved captain wasn’t immune to it.

Benjamin Sisko’s Slow-Dance with the Devil ‘In the Pale Moonlight’

Sisko (left) receives his assignment from Captain Picard in DS9's first episode

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The war is going poorly for Starfleet, with mounting casualties and losses of Federation territory. The Cardassians are aligned with the Dominion, and the Klingons have allied with Starfleet. This leaves the Romulans as the only major Alpha Quadrant power not yet in the war on one side or another. They signed a non-aggression pact with the Dominion, but Sisko knows it’s as good as moot once the Dominion defeats the Federation and Klingons. In desperation, he goes to Garak, a simple Cardassian tailor living on the station who was also once a spy for Cardassia. He wants him to find “solid proof” of the Dominion’s eventual betrayal, which proves impossible. So, Garak suggests they invent some.

Garak has Sisko use his authority to get a holographic forger named Tolar out of a Klingon prison. He later stabs Quark, but Sisko talks security chief Odo into releasing him. He also effectively bribes the Ferengi bartender not to press charges. Tolar works on the forgery, a phony video of a meeting of Dominion and Cardassian leaders discussing their eventual invasion of Romulus. Sisko intimidates and threatens Tolar, too. After presenting the phony recording to the Romulans, the Dominion-sympathetic Senator Vreenak identifies it as a “faaaaake.”

It seems as if Sisko is about to reap what he’s sown by his dance with the devil, expecting the Romulans to enter the war but on the side of the Dominion. He then discovers Garak sabotaged the Senator’s shuttle, making it seem as if the Dominion assassinated him. The Romulans will discover the forgery, assuming the imperfections in the recording are merely damage from the explosion. At first, Sisko is enraged, but he eventually accepts what happened because it will turn the tide of the war. “All it cost,” Garak tells him, “was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer.” For the safety of the galaxy, Garak calls it “a bargain.”

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There is no question that Captain Sisko is indeed an accessory to murder. Garak accuses him of knowing all along something like this was bound to happen, but Sisko had just punched him in the face. The meeting between Sisko and Vreenak was a secret, so the Romulans would believe he’d obtained the recording from the Dominion. However, not even the spy-turned-tailor knew for certain the plot would end with Vreenak’s death. He told Sisko he “hoped” the forgery would work, but the assassination made success a certainty.

Tolar, however, is a different matter. Sisko told the forger if the recording didn’t fool the Romulans, he was going to send him back to the Klingon prison. If it had worked, Sisko promised Tolar he could leave the station a free man. Yet, it’s clear that Garak never planned to let such a loose end remain dangling in the wind. It’s possible after years of working with Garak on one mission or another, Sisko believed the Cardassian would let the forger live. However, it’s hard to believe such a savvy and experienced officer wouldn’t expect Garak to “take care” of Tolar permanently.

At the very least, Sisko had “plausible deniability,” where Tolar and Vreenak were concerned. He didn’t know for certain they were going to be killed, but it’s difficult to believe he never even considered the possibility. His rage at Garak after the deaths shows he’s still the good and moral Starfleet officer he was at the start of the episode. Yet, as his final log entry makes clear, he doesn’t feel all that guilty about it. “I think I can live with it,” he says, raising a glass of liquor to the camera, and then he erases the entire log leaving no record of his perfidy.

Captain Sisko Did the Wrong Thing for the Right Reasons

Captain Benjamin Sisko sitting on the bridge of the Defiant in Star Trek Deep Space Nine

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Fans can make a sincere case that Sisko is not liable for Garak’s murders, but he definitely crossed a line. Throughout the story, he makes many tiny compromises that a Starfleet officer shouldn’t. From using threats and intimidation to outright lying to start a war that will result in thousands, maybe even millions, of casualties is clearly the “wrong” thing to do. However, Sisko can live with it because he did those things for the right reasons.

If Starfleet fell, the Alpha Quadrant would suffer. The Federation, and its values, are worth protecting, even if he had to step outside the boundaries of that morality to do it. This is not a decision any other Starfleet captain could’ve made, largely because none of them had to live through a war. Despite episodes like “In the Pale Moonlight,” Deep Space Nine was a deeply hopeful and aspirational series. It was just the first one to test the values at the core of Starfleet. Deep Space Nine revealed how fragile Gene Roddenberry’s utopia might be, which is why someone like Sisko would go to any lengths to protect it.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is streaming on Paramount+ and is available to own digitally, on Blu-ray and DVD.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine poster

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

In the vicinity of the liberated planet of Bajor, the Federation space station Deep Space Nine guards the opening of a stable wormhole to the far side of the galaxy.

Release Date
January 3, 1993

Cast
Avery Brooks , Rene Auberjonois , Alexander Siddig , Terry Farrell , Cirroc Lofton , Colm Meaney

Seasons
7

Number of Episodes
176

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